“Everything is bonus here! Free flight, free bus — everything free!” reports Mira Rai by phone from her home district of Bhojpur in eastern Nepal. “Now I am a little bit up here! Wow!” She’s referring to her newly elevated status as a hero of her district, complete with VIP treatment. “Here, network a little bit problem. OK, bye-bye time. Ciao ciao!” and she continued on the two-day journey to her village.
Rai’s spoken English has its own system of grammar, in which ‘Wow’ and ‘Ha ha’ serve as punctuation, but it also conveys happy disbelief in her still-unfolding fairytale, a zero-to-hero story with a fast-paced plot line.
In the fall of 2013, Rai was prepared to go to Malaysia to work in a factory, but at the last minute, her former karate instructor invited her to come to Kathmandu and train for track and road racing. Bearing in mind her strength and endurance, he suggested 10,000m might be her best event.
The venture was not entirely successful. Unable to afford the small fee to train at the stadium, Rai phoned a coach for training plans, and was often prescribed a counter-productive slog along the heavily polluted ring road around Kathmandu. She improved this regimen by running up a hill to a scenic viewpoint most mornings. She’d never heard of trail running, or “hilly up-down running,” as she called it.
By March 2014, with just 20 rupees left, Rai was ready to quit Kathmandu for home, when, on her viewpoint morning run, she met two other runners who invited her to a ‘game,’ a race, that Saturday morning. She showed up for the tough Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50km in a cotton t-shirt, tracksuit pants, and $3 running shoes. Nine hours, a hailstorm, and a washed-out trail later, Rai was the first and only female finisher. She accepted prizes of $80 and a pair of Salomon shoes, and her trail-running career was born.
Fifteen months later, Rai won the prestigious Mont-Blanc 80km in Italy, breaking Emelie Forsberg’s course record. The finish-line photo showed Rai, beaming, holding the Nepali flag above her head.
“I was thinking if I could win that race, while my country was crying [due to the earthquake], I could bring a small bit of happiness. I believe the timing was important,” she said. She was right: Rai made the front page of the national daily newspapers, pushing tedious politics aside. “She did something good for Nepal,” said a shop owner in Kathmandu. “It is very good.”
“After my birthday, this is the best day of my life,” she said of the Mont Blanc race, her longest effort yet. “I was running with Hillary [Allen], just staying behind. I took it a bit easily. Really enjoyed. Wow, checkpoints they have fruit, everything, to eat,” she said, making a mouth-filling motion with both hands. “You can drink so much you have to spit it out! Near every checkpoint — ‘Allez allez,’ ‘Dai dai,’ cow bells tung tung tung. I am ‘Hello, hi everybody,’” she laughs. “At 65km, I said, ‘Let’s go, Hillary,’ and started a little bit fast. First sister [Anna Comet Pascua of Spain] was walking hands on legs. I am just walking normally, and passed her. I met Greg [Vollet, of team Salomon] at 70km. ‘Wow Mira, you are very strong,’ Greg said. OK, I will try. Bye-bye Greg brother, then I am going, and I ran hard.”
Tite Togni, a trail runner who has hosted Rai in Italy the past two summers, said this about her sponge-like aptitude: “She’s a fast learner, adapting very quickly to situations, which I bet comes from her practical schooling (agriculture) — not too much theory. In Italy, every morning before training she watched Kíllian [Jornet] videos to learn.”
The trajectory of her trail-running career has been as steep as some of the trails. Just over 12 months from her first competitive race found her challenging reigning champion Emelie Forsberg for the Skyrunning World Championships at the 109km Ultra Pirineu in Spain. Rai finished in second place, just 4min back. “I started the competition too soon,” she said at dinner a few hours after the finish. She passed Núria Picas, caught up to Forsberg, and took the lead too early in the race, which gave Forsberg a chance to recover and launch her next attack. “Next time, I will do it better,” she said.
Rai is small — 48kg, 160cm — and strong, built for endurance, but the key to her success is not merely physical. She uses the word chance frequently, as in, “Wow, good chance I have.” Her climbing friend gave her comment context, describing the life of a woman in a remote village as “enduringly monotonous.” Rai’s first chance to escape this bleak future came when she was 14 years old, and the Maoist army came recruiting towards the end of their 10-year insurgency. Fully aware of the limitations of village life, Rai was always on the lookout for opportunities, and was driven to make those opportunities work. The Maoist rebels represented an opportunity, a chance to do something different and disprove “the feeling that I am inferior to other people.” Telling her mother she’d be back in a week, she joined the Maoist rebels for two years.
Her climbing instructor, Niraj Karki, noted another advantageous attribute: “Mira doesn’t overthink things.” She has Rai logic. Pre-race nerves? “No,” she said, “I have training. If I had not done it, then I would be nervous. If I run according to my training, then it’s OK. No need to be nervous.” Is she upset if she comes second? “No, the other guy was stronger. Now I know what I need to do next time.” Is she usually happy? “Yes, of course. Every day I am happy, why not? It’s important!”
She’s also bold in new situations. Often out of her comfort zone in new places with new people and limited language skills, she forges ahead with sunny optimism. Giving an interview on Spanish television? “No problem, I will try.”
Rai is a role model for young people in Nepal. Her story has been featured widely in national dailies, on the BBC world service, on websites like OutsideOnline.com, and even a 500,000 circulation women’s fashion magazine. She’s depicted in murals in several cities, has 14,561 likes on her Facebook page, and is the subject of a documentary film, to be released in early December. The impact of her success has been felt in the worldwide trail-running community, and close to home: Rai reported that the schoolteacher in her home village organised a 4km trail race, including her parents’ house as a checkpoint along the course.
“My hope is to help sisters and to influence Nepali women, to say that we have power as well, and we can do anything. I want them to know that,” Rai said.
With money from prizes, sponsors, and fundraisers from proud Nepali organisations, she’s become one of the few athletes able to survive on sports income alone. But she realises that she must prepare for the future, like other young Nepalis who look up to her, and continues to pursue her education, as well as training.
Rai plans to spend the remaining months of 2015 resting before gearing up for next year’s demanding race schedule. She’s been invited to the very competitive Zegama trail race in Spain, and is considering races in China where the prize money is attractive. If it looks like a good chance, she will try and make it work.
It’s been said that champions will find a way to be successful, no matter what. Rai demonstrates that determination: “If I’d not found running I would have done something; I wouldn’t just be idle. I would be searching for other chances.” She’s found her chance, and has started to change the world a little for others.
Richard Bull lives and runs in Kathmandu, Nepal. He organises stage races in the Himalayas and a few ultras in the hills around the Kathmandu Valley.
- Name: Mira Rai
- Age: 27
- Nationality: Nepalese
- Sponsor: Salomon
- Running résume: 1st in MSIG HK50 Sai Kung (Asia Skyrunning Championship), 1st in Mont Blanc 80k, 2nd in Tromsø Skyrace, 2nd in Ultra Pirineu. Rank No. 2 in 2015 Ultra Skymarathon Series.
- Typical training day: 1-2 hour of stretching and run before breakfast, and another 2 hours in the afternoon. For longer training sessions, she will run three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Rai also has to study English at the language center six hours a day.
By Richard Bull